Change search
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link
Social semiotics in university physics education: Leveraging critical constellations of disciplinary representations
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research, Fysikens didactic)ORCID iD: 0000-0003-3244-2586
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research, Fysikens didaktik)ORCID iD: 0000-0001-6409-5182
2015 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Social semiotics is a broad construct where all communication is viewed as being realized through signs and their signification. In physics education we usually refer to these signs as disciplinary representations. These disciplinary representations are the semiotic resources used in physics communication, such as written and oral languages, diagrams, graphs, mathematics, apparatus and simulations. This alternative depiction of representations is used to build theory with respect to the construction and sharing of disciplinary knowledge in the teaching and learning of university physics. Based on empirical studies of physics students cooperating to explain the refraction of light, a number of theoretical constructs were developed. In this presentation we describe these constructs and examine their usefulness for problematizing teaching and learning in university physics. The theoretical constructs are: fluency in semiotic resources, disciplinary affordance and critical constellations.

The conclusion formulates a proposal that has these constructs provide university physics teachers with a new set of meaningfully and practical tools, which will enable them to re-conceptualize their practice in ways that have the distinct potential to optimally enhance student learning.




This aim of this theoretical paper is to present representations as semiotic resources in order to make a case for three related constructs that we see as being central to learning with multiple representations in university physics; fluency in semiotic resources, disciplinary affordance and critical constellations. We suggest that an understanding of these constructs is a necessary part of a physics lecturer’s educational toolbox.


Why semiotics?

The construct of representations as it is presently used in science education can, in our opinion, be unintentionally limiting since it explicitly excludes important aspects such as physical objects, (e.g. physics apparatus) and actions (e.g. measuring a value). Clearly, such aspects play a central role in sharing physics meaning and they are explicitly included as semiotic resources in a social semiotic approach. Van Leeuwen (2005:1) explains the preference for the term semiotic resource instead of other terms such as representation claiming that “[…] it avoids the impression that what a [representation] stands for is somehow pre-given, and not affected by its use”. Thus, the term semiotic resource encompasses other channels of meaning making, as well as everything that is generally termed external representations (Ainsworth, 2006).


Why social semiotics?

The reason for adopting social semiotics is that different groups develop their own systems of meaning making. This is often achieved either by the creation of new specialized semiotic resources or by assigning specific specialized meaning to more general semiotic resources. Nowhere is this more salient than in physics where the discipline draws on a wide variety of specialized resources in order to share physics knowledge. In our work in undergraduate physics education we have introduced three separate constructs that we believe are important for learning in physics: fluency in semiotic resources, disciplinary affordance and critical constellations.


Fluency in semiotic resources

The relationship between learning and representations has received much attention in the literature. The focus has often been how students can achieve “representational competence” (For a recent example see Linder et al 2014). In this respect, different semiotic resources have been investigated, including mathematics, graphs, gestures, diagrams and language. Considering just one of these resources, spoken language, it is clear that in order to share meaning using this resource one first needs to attain some sort of fluency in the language in question. We have argued by extension that the same holds for all the semiotic resources that we use in physics (Airey & Linder, 2009). It is impossible to make meaning with a disciplinary semiotic resource without first becoming fluent in its use. By fluency we mean a process through which handling a particular semiotic resource with respect to a given piece of physics content becomes unproblematic, almost second-nature. Thus, in our social semiotic characterization, if a person is said to be fluent in a particular semiotic resource, then they have come to understand the ways in which the discipline generally uses that resource to share physics knowledge. Clearly, such fluency is educationally critical for understanding the ways that students learn to combine semiotic resources, which is the interest of this symposium. However, there is more to learning physics than achieving fluency. For example:


MIT undergraduates, when asked to comment about their high school physics, almost universally declared they could “solve all the problems” (and essentially all had received A's) but still felt they “really didn't understand at all what was going on”. diSessa (1993, p. 152)


Clearly, these students had acquired excellent fluency in disciplinary semiotic resources, yet still lacked a qualitative conceptual understanding.


The disciplinary affordance of semiotic resources

Thus, we argue that becoming fluent in the use of a particular semiotic resource, though necessary, is not sufficient for an appropriate physics understanding. For an appropriate understanding we argue that students need to come to appreciate the disciplinary affordance of the semiotic resource (Fredlund, Airey, & Linder, 2012; Fredlund, Linder, Airey, & Linder, 2015). We define disciplinary affordance as the potential of a given semiotic resource to provide access to disciplinary knowledge. Thus we argue that combining fluency with an appreciation of the disciplinary affordance of a given semiotic resource leads to appropriate disciplinary meaning making. However, in practice the majority of physics phenomena cannot be adequately represented by one a single semiotic resource. This leads us to the theme of this symposium—the combination of multiple representations.


Critical constellations – the significance of this work for the symposium theme

The significance of the social semiotic approach we have outlined for work on multiple representations lies in the concept of critical constellations.

Building on the work of Airey & Linder (2009), Airey (2009) suggests there is a critical constellation of disciplinary semiotic resources that are necessary for appropriate holistic experience of any given disciplinary concept. Using our earlier constructs we can see that students will first need to become fluent in each of the semiotic resources that make up this critical constellation. Next, they need to come to appreciate the disciplinary affordance of each separate semiotic resource. Then, finally, they can attempt to grasp the concept in an appropriate, disciplinary manner. In this respect, Linder (2013) suggests that disciplinary learning entails coming to appreciate the collective disciplinary affordance of a critical constellation of semiotic resources.



There are a number of consequences of this work for the teaching and learning of physics. First, we claim that teachers need to provide opportunities for their students to achieve fluency in a range of semiotic resources. Next teachers need to know more about the disciplinary affordances of the individual semiotic resources they use in their teaching (see Fredlund et al 2012 for a good example of this type of work).

Finally, teachers need to contemplate which critical constellations of semiotic resources are necessary for making which physics knowledge available to their students. In this respect physics teachers need to appreciate that knowing their students as learners includes having a deep appreciation of the kinds of critical constellations that their particular students need in order to effectively learn physics



Ainsworth, S. (2006). DeFT: A conceptual framework for considering learning with multiple representations. Learning and Instruction, 16(3), 183-198.

Airey, J. (2009). Science, Language and Literacy. Case Studies of Learning in Swedish University Physics. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology 81. Uppsala  Retrieved 2009-04-27, from

Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27-49.

diSessa, A. A. (1993). Toward an Epistemology of Physics. Cognition and Instruction, 10(2 & 3), 105-225.

Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: an illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. European Journal of Physics, 33, 657-666.

Fredlund, T., Linder, C., Airey, J., & Linder, A. (2015). Unpacking physics representations: towards an appreciation of disciplinary affordance. Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res., 10( 020128 (2014)).

Linder, A., Airey, J., Mayaba, N., & Webb, P. (2014). Fostering Disciplinary Literacy? South African Physics Lecturers’ Educational Responses to their Students’ Lack of Representational Competence. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 18(3). doi: 10.1080/10288457.2014.953294

Linder, C. (2013). Disciplinary discourse, representation, and appresentation in the teaching and learning of science. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 1(2), 43-49.

van leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing social semiotics. London: Routledge.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Representations, Social semiotics, Disciplinary affordance, Pedagogical affordance, Unpacking.
National Category
Other Physics Topics Educational Sciences Didactics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-261341OAI: diva2:851667
11th conference of the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA 2015), August 31 - September 4, 2015, Helsinki, Finland
Swedish Research Council, 721-2010-5780
Available from: 2015-09-07 Created: 2015-09-01 Last updated: 2015-12-06Bibliographically approved

Open Access in DiVA

fulltext(1764 kB)44 downloads
File information
File name FULLTEXT02.pdfFile size 1764 kBChecksum SHA-512
Type fulltextMimetype application/pdf

Search in DiVA

By author/editor
Airey, JohnLinder, Cedric
By organisation
Physics Didactics
Other Physics TopicsEducational SciencesDidactics

Search outside of DiVA

GoogleGoogle Scholar
Total: 44 downloads
The number of downloads is the sum of all downloads of full texts. It may include eg previous versions that are now no longer available

Total: 790 hits
ReferencesLink to record
Permanent link

Direct link